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By Hadas Gold April 22, 2010

The facts on the risks of nuclear power plants

Not only is nuclear power reliable and efficient, it's also extremely safe, Sen. Lamar Alexander wrote in an op-ed column in the newspaper The Hill.

"No member of the American public has ever been killed by commercial nuclear power — a record unmatched by other fuels," wrote Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, along with Theodore Rockwell, a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and a vice president of Radiation, Science and Health Inc.

Considering the history of incidents like Three Mile Island and the deadly Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, we decided to take a closer look at the history of commercial nuclear power plants, and see if, in fact, no one has ever been killed by commercial nuclear power in the United States.

In order to help narrow our search, we decided not to count a death from a workplace hazard, for example slipping and falling. We're specifically looking at the workers in plants who are killed from the process of creating nuclear power.

Alexander's staff told us the senator got his facts from the American Nuclear Society Web site, which states in a "Myths and Facts" section that "No member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the U.S."

We confirmed that with David Decker, congressional analyst for the government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of nuclear plants.

"I believe that the senator's statement was that there have been no deaths due to nuclear-related accidents at commercial nuclear power plants. From our perspective, this would be true," Decker said.

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There have, however, been deaths at nuclear plants. Some people have died in workplace accidents in non-nuclear areas of the plants. And three fatalities occurred at a research reactor rather than a commercial plant (Alexander specified commercial plants).

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, a group that works to eliminate nuclear use in the United States, cited an accident that killed three men in 1961.

They were members of the military working at an experimental nuclear plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho. They died in an accident related to the improper removal of control rods and a chain reaction of the uranium, according to a 1961 Milwaukee Journal article. The explosion released so much radiation that rescuers could only enter the area to recover the bodies for one minute at a time. The bodies were so radioactive that they were buried in lead caskets. (One is at Arlington National Cemetery.)

In a 1986 incident, four workers were killed at the Surry power plant in Virginia from the rupture of a pipe that sprayed workers with scalding water and steam. But the accident happened in a non-nuclear portion of the plant.

Despite these deaths, nuclear power does stack up as one of the safest forms of energy. It's difficult to get a good comparison with other power-source fatalities because the numbers don't necessarily separate between common workplace hazards and those specifically related to the power source. But for comparison, 13 people have been killed in hydroelectric power generation since 2003, and fossil-fuel electric power generation has killed 23 since then, said Andrew Marsh, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So while people in the United States have been killed in non-commercial plants and in non-nuclear areas of a commercial plant, Alexander is right that no has been killed "by commercial nuclear power." And those statistics and the most complete numbers we can find for other energy sources confirm his claim that it is a record unmatched by other fuels. So we find his claim True.

Update: This report mistakenly said that the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not keep numbers on injuries in nuclear power generation plants. We have removed the inaccurate sentence. Our ruling and analysis has not changed.

Our Sources

Sen. Lamar Alexander's website, "The Hill: Op-Ed: Go natural, go nuclear," by Sen. Lamar Alexander and Theodore Rockwell. March 9, 2010

Milwaukee Journal, "Atomic 'Whodunit,': Death at Idaho Falls," by Harry Pease, March 18, 1961

American Nuclear Society, Myths and Facts, March 24, 2010

Phone and e-mail interviews with David Decker, congressional analyst at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, March 24, 2010

E-mail interview with Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, March 25, 2010

E-mail interview with Brett Meeks, Deputy Press Secretary to Senator Lamar Alexander, March 24, 2010

E-mail interview with Andrew Marsh, an economist for the Office of Health and Safety Statistics at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 5, 2010

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